Increased vulnerability of nigral dopamine neurons after expansion of their axonal arborization size through D2 dopamine receptor conditional knockout

PLoS Genet. 2019 Aug 26;15(8):e1008352. doi: 10.1371/journal.pgen.1008352. eCollection 2019 Aug.


Parkinson's disease (PD) is a neurodegenerative disorder characterized by the loss of dopamine (DA) neurons in the substantia nigra pars compacta (SNc). Rare genetic mutations in genes such as Parkin, Pink1, DJ-1, α-synuclein, LRRK2 and GBA are found to be responsible for the disease in about 15% of the cases. A key unanswered question in PD pathophysiology is why would these mutations, impacting basic cellular processes such as mitochondrial function and neurotransmission, lead to selective degeneration of SNc DA neurons? We previously showed in vitro that SNc DA neurons have an extremely high rate of mitochondrial oxidative phosphorylation and ATP production, characteristics that appear to be the result of their highly complex axonal arborization. To test the hypothesis in vivo that axon arborization size is a key determinant of vulnerability, we selectively labeled SNc or VTA DA neurons using floxed YFP viral injections in DAT-cre mice and showed that SNc DA neurons have a much more arborized axon than those of the VTA. To further enhance this difference, which may represent a limiting factor in the basal vulnerability of these neurons, we selectively deleted in mice the DA D2 receptor (D2-cKO), a key negative regulator of the axonal arbour of DA neurons. In these mice, SNc DA neurons have a 2-fold larger axonal arborization, release less DA and are more vulnerable to a 6-OHDA lesion, but not to α-synuclein overexpression when compared to control SNc DA neurons. This work adds to the accumulating evidence that the axonal arborization size of SNc DA neurons plays a key role in their vulnerability in the context of PD.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Axons / pathology
  • Disease Models, Animal
  • Dopaminergic Neurons / pathology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mice
  • Mice, Knockout
  • Mitochondria / pathology
  • Neuronal Plasticity / genetics*
  • Oxidative Phosphorylation
  • Parkinson Disease / genetics
  • Parkinson Disease / pathology*
  • Pars Compacta / cytology
  • Pars Compacta / pathology*
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2 / genetics*
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2 / metabolism


  • DRD2 protein, mouse
  • Receptors, Dopamine D2